Touch first, ask questions later. That’s the motto a robotic deep-sea explorer lives by as it examines the depths by touch. Shaped like a three-fingered hand, the robot could be used to fix problems at deep-sea oil and gas wells.
Underwater visibility is impaired by impurities or sediments in the water, says Achint Aggarwal at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Bremen (DFKI). In such conditions, it is very difficult to find or manipulate objects.
To cut through the murk, Aggarwal and his team created a robot hand that could be attached to an undersea vehicle. Built-in sensors track changes in pressure, texture and movement as the hand explores an object. Software uses the sensor readings to create a digital map of the object and make an educated guess about what it might be.
The team tested the hand at a pressure equivalent to 6 kilometres under water. It probed several objects, including a mug, chess piece and toy shark and was right about 90 per cent of the time (Journal of Field Robotics, doi.org/vh9). “They’ve developed a technology that’s basically pressure-proof,” says Dennis Schweers of Nuytco Research, which develops underwater exploration equipment in Canada. “I’m very impressed.”